TAMPA — Beneath their practice jerseys and shoulder pads, all Bucs players have worn a device the front office hopes will help players get the most out of practices while avoiding injury.
They look like black sports bras. Made by an Australian sports technology company Catapult, they come with a small device embedded in the back that can track hundreds of data points through GPS technology.
The Catapault equipment represents one of the several innovations the Bucs implemented this season after general manager Jason Licht and new coach Bruce Arians created a sports science department. They hired Greg Skaggs to a newly created position, director of athlete performance, to oversee the use of data in partnership with the trainers, strength and conditioning staff and nutritionist to find better ways to optimize practices.
The Catapult device tracks data like heart rate, distance a player travels, the speed at which they are running and how they accelerate or decelerate. The staff can then use the numbers to adjust practice plans and individual workouts. It can also help determine when rehabbing players can return from injury, or reveal an unknown physical issue a player might be enduring.
“Coaches [might] think, this is what we’re doing with this script today, but then it turns out that maybe we end up objectively measuring that it was a lot more running than we originally thought and the intensity wasn’t really that high, or vice versa,” Skaggs said. “There wasn’t that much running but the running there was, was a lot of intense running where there was a lot of accelerating and decelerating.
“There’s a lot of different metrics you can measure from trying to quantify what happened.”
Arians’ embrace of such technology belies his 66 years and Bear Bryant roots. He’s a coach who values all information, and when Licht approached him about starting a sports science department during his interview process, Arians endorsed it. Licht created the Bucs’ analytics team during his first season as general manager in 2014,
“You have to stay ahead of the curve,” Arians said. “I was (looking at game film) in 16 millimeter, then beta tapes, then all of a sudden we had computers and you punched (information) up in a second when it took you three hours to do that work. It would cut hours out of a coach’s week. So the same thing with sports science as far as the individual healing of a player, the recovery and everything. We’re still pushing the envelope in terms of getting things in here for recovery so that guys can bounce back quicker.”
Asked whether using the technology is a must for winning organizations, Arians said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt.”
In 2013, Catapult already had contracts with 14 different NFL teams and elite college teams, including Alabama, Florida State and Nebraska, have relied on GPS technology for several years.
When Bucs tight end O.J. Howard played collegiately at Alabama, the Crimson Tide had started using GPS technology. He said the data players receive now is much more comprehensive.
“For us at Bama, mainly they’d show us our speeds and the coaches and trainers would show us the overall practice stuff, but over here it’s a different level,” Howard said. “You can look at a lot of stuff: reps, your endurance, speed, how much energy you lost and used, all that. So it’s a more updated version of what we used in college.”
Howard said Alabama coach Nick Saban initially seemed skeptical about the technology, but then saw results in the reduction of injuries.
“They used it well,” he said. “They knew days when we should recover and there would be days when they told (Saban) when to take down the load a little bit. The first year, I don’t think coach really believed it, and then coach really uses it now.”
Bucs linebacker Kevin Minter said GPS devices were being used in shoulder pads during practices and games when he was playing at LSU from 2010-12, and the Cardinals employed it some when he played there under Arians from 2013-16.
“College (football) is kind of always ahead because they spend the money on that type of stuff,” Minter said. “Have you seen my facility (at LSU)? We started doing it out in Arizona and I know a lot of these guys collect, every year they would kind of structure practice around those numbers. It’s kind of the same thing here. The amount of plays, especially on the offensive side with receivers, it’s kind of moderating guys to make sure everybody is at 100 percent come game time.”
“It’s about that balance of working hard and overworking,” Minter added. “It is a thin line.”
Inside the Bucs locker room, players step on a scale, call up their individualized profile and can get a reading within seconds that uses their pre- and post-practice weight along with other data to show how well each player stayed hydrated.
“Some days it might be a high rep practice and you use more energy,” Howard said. “I’m a guy who has to hydrate more because I tend to lose a lot of weight, water weight, during practice, so I’m just one of those guys who has to hydrate a little more than normal.”
Before the season, the Bucs hired Anthony Piroli as head strength and conditioning coach. Piroli, who spent last season at Mississippi State, worked for Arians in Arizona as an assistant in that area three years and was in charge of the Cardinals’ sports science and GPS tracking efforts. Then in May, the Bucs hired Skaggs, who was the director of athletic medicine at the University of Oregon for 13 years.
“The whole part of this job is to get these departments to share information on a daily basis so we can really craft individual training programs for each player,” Skaggs said. “So if the team got really dehydrated yesterday — and there’s a lot of different ways we can measure hydration — and then try to craft an environment today that gets done what we need them to do performance-wise in terms of training but yet we don’t want to overstep our bounds and have people get injured.”
In the college game, GPS devices can be used in games as well as practices, but in the NFL, they may not be used during games. That leaves a gap in ability to completely gauge performance.
Using the data to help players perform is a work in progress. Several times during training camp, the Bucs were forced to practice in their indoor facility because of bad weather. But they raised the temperature in the indoor building in order to prepare players for the outdoor heat. That allowed players to get their body temperatures up to a certain point where adaptations — like sweating a certain amount — start to occur.
The team could control the temperature. Controlling the humidity wasn’t as easy, which made for some sweltering practices inside.
“There’s not really a magic temperature,” Skaggs said. “Because it’s different for everybody. It depends on your percent body fat. Are you a big guy or a little guy in terms of how fast your core body temperature can go up. It definitely depends on your fitness level; the more fit you are, the slower your body temperature comes up.
“So what you’re trying to do is create an environment where on average everybody is going to get their body temperature in this training zone where there’s a bunch of adaptations that happen that are long lasting and provide a benefit to being able to perform in a hot environment.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.